Saturday, May 05, 2007

What we lost when Hawkeye left Korea

The man waved one last good-bye to his friend. He watched the other man ride his motorcycle down the hill from the helipad and off into the distance.

He motioned for the pilot to take the chopper into the air. He smiled at the "Goodbye" note his friend had made with some rocks. Then he leaned back in his seat and rested.

He was tired, looked older than his years. Three years in a MASH unit had taken a toll.

When Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) left the fictional "M*A*S*H" on Feb. 28, 1983, we lost more than a fine television program. We lost good writing -- and great acting. We lost a program that made the audience think, and perhaps, reexamine their personal philosophy.

We couldn't have known it then, but in many ways the big "M*A*S*H" finale (still the most-watched program in TV history) was a watershed. Its like hasn't been seen since -- and probably never will.

Critics complain that the show lost its way about half-way through its 11 year run. Too sentimental, they said. Too bogged down in Alan Alda's personal philosophy.

Hogwash.

My boss jokes that she's making me out to be a feminist. She's certainly broadened my mind, but that started with "M*A*S*H."

Never will forget a later episode, "Hey, Look Me Over." Hawkeye ignored sweet, gentle nurse Kellye (and her advances) while chasing after the more physically appealing, but somewhat self-centered, other nurses in the unit.Then he observed her comforting a patient, realized what a fine woman she was, and asked her for a date.

Kellye got him back at the end and Hawk learned a little something about women -- and himself.

My favorite part of "M*A*S*H" was its character development. Hawkeye evolves from a skirt-chasing womanizer to a sensitive and somewhat troubled human being. His cock-sureness disappeared somewhere in all the blood and guts of the OR.

Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) became over those 11 years the most three-dimensional woman ever presented on American television. Her journey from "Hot Lips" to the woman who realizes she deserves better than both the impish Frank Burns and the two-timing Donald Penobscott is one of the more remarkable character arcs in TV history.

By the end of the series, Margaret even bucked her beloved father's wishes, choosing to realize her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse in an American hospital after the war.

And, of course, we can't forget about Charles Emerson Winchester III. Charles loosened up over the years. We found out why he pretended to be such a snobbish stuffed shirt, saw him fall in love and witnessed in horror his meltdown after five Chinese POWs were killed. I've often thought that David Ogden Stiers was the most underrated member of the show's fine ensemble cast.

I watched that classic final episode this morning while the rain poured outside my window. I was quite pleased to find that not only does it hold up after 24 years, it's still very much a masterpiece.

Take the ironies. Winchester's love of classical music was a solace from the harsh realities of war. After the POWs are killed, Mozart will forever be a reminder. Max Klinger (Jamie Farr), the guy who once wore dresses in an attempt to get home, ended up staying in Korea with his new bride Soon-Lee (Rosalind Chao).

You don't see that kind of writing anymore. In fact, with the onslaught of "reality TV," you don't see any writing at all.

Sociologists and culture critics look at modern American society from time to time and wonder about it all. Why aren't children more creative, they ask. Why all the vapid looks? Why is a whole generation coming of age totally ignorant of its history? Why is modern television such a cultural wasteland?

Next time you sit down to an episode of "Survivor," or root on your favorite American idols, remember the story of the helicopter taking Hawkeye Pierce away from Korea. Compare "M*A*S*H," its witty (and poignant) writing, stellar acting and overall philosophy, to the mindless crap in front of you.

The answers to those questions suddenly seem crystal clear.

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